Artist Ekua Holmes wants to plant hope all over Roxbury

We're grateful to The Boston Globe's Cristela Guerra for her lovely feature this week on N+T Accelerator Artist Ekua Holmes and her Accelerator project The Roxbury Sunflowers Project.

On a hot Monday outside the Grove Hall branch of the Boston Public Library, Roxbury artist Ekua Holmes watered a dry garden bed. Inside the planter were seedlings sown in early June. Barely visible, tiny green petals were the beginnings of her public art project.

Her vision is to plant 10,000 sunflowers all over Roxbury, spreading beauty through seeds.

“Artists deal in the currency of hope,” Holmes said. “We deal in the currency of beauty, and our job is to reflect back to society what we see.”

To reach her goal of a massive sunflower harvest in September means daily care, especially on very dry days. It also means helping others in the community imagine the possibilities.

“You’re watering weeds,” a man said with a laugh.

“Some of those are weeds,” Holmes said. “And some of those are beautiful sunflowers and beautiful wildflowers. I say, water everything. It isn’t up to us to decide who is worthy. How many people thought we were weeds?”

A grant from the Now+There six-month public art accelerator program in Boston helped Holmes and five other artists cultivate their ideas. The program provided her with $21,000 in funding for what has became known as the Roxbury Sunflower Project.

So far, Holmes has handed out 15,000 seeds to local businesses, community advocates, and nonprofits since the beginning of June and planted between 500 and 700 sunflowers herself.

Kate Gilbert, executive director at Now+There, called the effort a project of hope. Holmes has also called it a project of self-determination.

“It’s both generous and ephemeral,” Gilbert said. “It creates a sense of urgency in that you really need to be part of it in early June, you need to grab your seeds and get in the ground. It’s asking every one of us to nurture those tiny little seeds.”

Holmes carries sunflower seeds in the back of her car, just in case she needs to give them out. On social media and via e-mail, she gets daily updates on how the flowers are faring.

An estimated 120 individuals have planted seeds across the community, including aspiring farmers with the Urban Farming Institute.

The goal is to hold a mass harvest in September and share sunflowers with community centers and homeless shelters. Holmes plans to create six collages inspired by sunflowers that will be displayed in the windows of the Freedom House, a nonprofit in Roxbury whose mission is to mentor local teens through high school and into college.

“It’s beauty at its finest that grows in our community,” said Lisa Martin, administrative coordinator with the Freedom House. “I think sunflowers bring light, and that’s what to me Freedom House brings to the community, so, anything that draws attention from chaos to beauty.”